By Tanner Kent
---- — Nicole Helget's latest novel is as dense with colorful characters as the St. Croix River is dense with white pine logs in the photo that inspired her writing.
"Stillwater," which will be released in February by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, began for Helget more than five years ago — in part with the recollection of a photo she saw once in a history course at Minnesota State University.
The image is of the St. Croix River in 1884 near Taylor's Falls. A cast of individuals are pictured standing on a tangled mat of logs, evidence of the wide river underneath nowhere to be scene. In the foreground of the image is a smartly dressed lad atop a near-vertical log in the center of the mass. Though the photo doesn't depict Stillwater per se, it bears witness to the city's formative years as the terminus for the white pine that fed Minnesota's once-booming logging business.
While Helget's novel is far from a recitation of the local history, her characteristically lyrical prose imagines the lot of rough-hewn and indelicate pioneers who carved civilization and statehood from wild lands. And though it will come as no surprise to the community that has followed her ascension into national literary recognition, "Stillwater" once again illustrates the author's unflinching treatment of the human condition. In moments of barbarity and humility, violence and tenderness, greed and sacrifice, Helget leaves no saint without sin and no sinner without grace.
"That (logjam) image paid off for me in a lot of ways I didn't expect," said the award-winning North Mankato author who will appear Satuday on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition to talk about her book. "It came to represent the conflict between preservation of the natural landscape and this industry barreling through the area."
Caught in the middle of such a conflict are Clement and Scholastica Piety, twin brother and sister born to Beaver Jean, an uncouth fur trapper with keen sense and a "reeking maw," and the child bride he purchased for "some coffee and a few shoddy pelts" from the abandoned wife of a lumber-camp laborer.
Deposited by their mother into the care of the local orphanage, the twins are soon separated. Scholastica is adopted into the wealthy family of a lumber baron and renamed Angel while Clement is left to be raised by the orphanage's pair of stoic matrons.
As Clement and Angel seek to understand their inexplicable bond cruelly severed shortly after their birth, their path is populated by the poisonous wife of the town's wealthiest inhabitant, runaway slaves, an earless priest, recalcitrant whores and Jean himself, who stumbles across his long-lost son only after tracking him for the bounty placed on his person for deserting the Union army.
What unfolds is a novel of portraiture — of characters, of industry, of an era and the cold realities that shaped it — that does not give up its moments of humanity lightly.
"I'm not trying to create mythical beings," said Helget of her cast of complex and often dichotomous characters, "because they're human."
Maybe too human for some. In one review posted by Kirkus Reviews, the author was criticized for crafting a narrative with "too many colorful characters clamoring for attention." Seemingly peripheral characters wander away from the margins of the narrative only to emerge later at its core; elsewhere, some of Helget's strongest personalities are left at the bottom of nameless rivers or hurling empty hysterics on the prairie.
But as characters emerge and recess, the process underscores the harsh realities of frontier existence. Only the toughest and cleverest earned the opportunity to lose their life on the Undeground Railroad, have their skull cleaved by a mistrusting daughter or their eyes burned blind by a martyred mother.
"I think more about character and setting than anything else," said Helget before adding her rejoinder to the criticism of having too many colorful characters: "That's the best criticism I've ever gotten."
The book, however, actually began as a collection of short stories. As such, the narrative retains a punchy, episodic trajectory that reveals a series of rises and falls, rather than emphasizing a single, over-arching storyline.
Helget said writing the book was laboring at times (as, she pointed out, all jobs are) but found the process punctuated by inspiring moments. Writing about Beaver Jean, she said, was particularly satisfying.
"In general, I'm a very dissatisfied person," Helget said when asked for her personal evaluation of the book. "I never think a thing is really great. But I came to a place where I was OK with 'Stillwater' and ready to let it go."
Presently, Helget is working on her next book, "Wonder at the Edge of the World," which will be published by Little, Brown and Company in 2015.